Antonio Manuel has had plenty of reasons over the years to leave Brazil and return to his native Portugal. In the late 1960s a series of his prints was selected for the prestigious Paris Biennale festival but it was seized by the military junta for censorship violations before it even left Rio de Janeiro. Manuel went into hiding and for much of the next decade he lived in fear, watching friends and fellow artists taken away to be tortured, sometimes never to appear again.
But he never considered leaving Rio, the “Cidade Maravilhosa” (Marvellous City). “I wouldn’t know how to live without these mountains,” he explains on a sweltering day at his studio in the city’s traditional Laranjeiras neighbourhood. Many of Brazil’s top-selling artists were either born or have chosen to live in Rio, including Beatriz Milhazes and Adriana Varejão and Cildo Meireles.
However, in recent years the city has become a viable place to sell high-profile art as well as create it. Preparations for the 2016 Olympics and Rio’s vast oil discoveries in 2007 have led to an economic “rebirth” which is having a knock-on effect in the art world, with new museums and galleries springing up – one of the top São Paulo-based galleries, Fortes Vilaça, is planning to open a Rio branch next year.
The biggest problem for artists who have wanted to exhibit in Rio has always been money. While artists may live in Rio, those rich enough to buy their works are usually based in São Paulo – the financial hub of Latin America. São Paulo’s Biennial, the world’s second-oldest, and the SP-Arte fair, which is in its 10th year, have also helped establish the city as an important stop on the global art circuit.
Although Rio is unlikely to take São Paulo’s place, it is no longer the backwater for galleries that it once was, says Márcia Fortes, co-founder of the Fortes Vilaça gallery, which is preparing to build an exhibition space within the city’s Jockey Club complex. “There are a lot more buyers now in Rio,” she says. “It’s similar to what happened in the US with the East and West Coast.”
Rio’s authorities and private collectors are also doing their bit to revive the city’s museum circuit. Last March, the Zurich-based collector Ruth Schmidheiny founded Casa Daros, a gallery of Latin American contemporary art housed in a 19th-century neoclassical mansion. The same month, the government opened the Museum of Rio Art as part of a $3.3bn renovation of the port region known as “Porto Maravilha” (Marvellous Port).
A new science museum is also planned for the port, although its name – the Museum of Tomorrow – might be tempting fate. Drawing on the old adage about Brazil, many joke that Rio is the city of the future and always will be. After all, Cariocas have had their hopes dashed before: like the Olympics, the Pan American Games in 2007 were also meant to herald a new “tomorrow” for Rio but ended up just draining the city’s coffers and saddling it with obsolete arenas.
But Fortes remains optimistic about Rio and her latest gallery. “It’s a super-inspiring city and I’m from Rio myself,” she says. “So I know it’s not sound business logic but I hope we can make it work.”